Spend, Spend, Spend

As you immerse yourself in the world of writing and writerly matters, you realise how many things there are on which to spend your hard-earned cash. I’m not talking notepads and pencils, or even laptops and software. I’m talking learning, skills and knowledge.

pound-414418_1280You have to navigate a landscape of courses lasting from a few hours to several days and even several months, and tutors with varying degrees of experience and personal success. Do you feel you need to gain an MA in Creative Writing? Will your budget permit you to go away for a few days to learn from tutors or authors you respect? Will you sign up for an on-line programme? Do you want a group or a solo learning experience?

There are hundreds of seminars and workshops, forums and discussion sessions too. There are mentoring services, coaching and writer support services offering teaching, guidance and advice. There’s a multitude of editorial services available. You can buy feedback on every aspect of your work – structuring it, drafting it, editing it, proofreading it – then on how to write synopses and query letters to agents. You can even meet real agents and real publishers.

If you’re considering self-publishing there are yet more courses and seminars instructing on design and layout, print versus e-book, marketing and promotion. And don’t forget the literary activities that must complement every writer’s ‘journey’ – retreats in hideaway places and those literary festivals which seem to be springing up in theatres and marquees in every county town across the land. Oh, and the books, the books about everything! From technique to technology, from genre to grammar, from marketing to making your millions.

Some of these things will help you become a better writer. Some will help you develop your creative process, your imagination, your appreciation of character, ear for dialogue, structure or plot. Some could give you a leg-up or a head start in the agenting and publishing stakes (but don’t bank on it). Some will give you vital insight into the business of books and publishing. Some will gain you exposure to successful people within the literary sphere – authors, agents and publishers. Some will simply give you the chance to shake the hand or collect the signature of an author you admire.

I believe this is not in general a cynical industry; but it is one which naturally seeks to capitalise on the novice writer’s desire to become part of it. That’s not surprising, given that the community of would-be authors grows daily and returns from the traditional sources of profit continue to diminish.

Most of the products, activities and services you can purchase will have a value – whether that equates with their cost to you, only you can say. I believe most of the investments I’ve made in developing myself as a writer have been worthwhile, insofar as they’ve helped me learn the skills I needed to write the fiction I’ve always wanted to write. They’ve also, almost universally, been enjoyable experiences – and that’s a not insignificant consideration.

But what of the ultimate commercial payoff? Will these investments have helped me become a successful published author?

I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Going Down

You thought it was finished? So did I. But the word-cull continues

scissors-editLast autumn, when I drew a line under my 6th or 7th redraft of Singled Out, I honestly thought it was finished; finished as far my neophyte novelist’s abilities would allow at least. But armed with some insightful observations and having taken a few months away from the words, things look different.

I’m around two-thirds of the way through yet another edit – the one I didn’t realise I needed. And here I am deleting not just words, but whole sentences, whole paragraphs too. Here I am turning a paragraph into a sentence and still… still… deleting adjectives and adverbs. Yes, the more you look, the more you find. It’s wordy Whack-a-Mole.

When I began submitting Singled Out to agents it stood at 97,600 words. This summer in response to feedback, I’ve added three new sections, perhaps a total of around 1,500 words. But the word-count is down to 94,000.

How did that happen?

I think, at last, I’ve begun to relinquish my grip on those favourite sections – those darlings – which have thus far had a free-pass from the editor’s pen; those (not so) clever turns of phrase that looked so… so… writerly when they went in; those extravagant why-use-one-word-when-twenty-will-do descriptive sections; and those parts of the story where I’ve failed to trust the reader to get what’s going on.

This is what you need distance for; to develop the ability – and willingness – to be dispassionate. At last I’m editing as if it wasn’t me but someone else who has written Singled Out. I can cull great chunks I couldn’t bear to part with before because, somehow, they don’t feel like mine any more.

Frustrating though it is to have not seen immediate success with submitting my manuscript, I can see why I’ve not made the cut (no pun intended). I don’t know if I’ll have done enough to see a positive outcome when I go back to agent submissions in a few weeks time – the odds are against me, after all. But I continue – in a perverse and yes, almost sadistic way – to draw satisfaction and even joy from the learning process.

At this point, I want to get Singled Out out there in one form or another – because I want to see the job finished. More than that, I’m now straining to get started on my next novel, the one where I think I can bring all my learnings into play and create something better and sharper – hopefully in somewhat less than four years.

“Thought Verbs” – Another side of “Show not Tell”

Thought Verbs Show Not TellAuthor and Journalist Chuck Palahniuk wrote this essay on “Thought Verbs” just over a year ago. It has been reposted many times, but, like me, you may have missed it. I recently came across it via a link which led to another link and another – you know how the internet works. It is excellent advice, for every writer seeking to master the “Show not Tell” challenge.

The link to what I believe is the original article is here, and the full piece is reproduced below, with every credit to the original essayist, Chuck Palahniuk.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Instead of saying:  “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

In short, no more short-cuts.  Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph  (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later)  In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph.  And what follows, illustrates them.

For example:

“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline.  Traffic was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits.  Her cell phone battery was dead.  At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up.  Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”

Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows?  Don’t do it.

If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others.  Better yet, transplant it and change it to:  Brenda would never make the deadline.

Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader:  “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.  Present each piece of evidence.  For example:

“During role call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout: ‘Butt Wipe,” just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.  Writing, you may be alone.  Reading, your audience may be alone.  But your character should spend very, very little time alone.  Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.

For example:  Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take..”

A better break-down might be:  “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57.  You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus.  No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap.  The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late.  Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”

A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.

Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.

No more transitions such as:  “Wanda remember how Nelson used to brush her hair.”

Instead:  “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”

Again, Un-pack.  Don’t take short-cuts.

Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.  Get them together and get the action started.  Let their actions and words show their thoughts.  You — stay out of  their heads.

And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone.

For example:

“Ann’s eyes are blue.”

“Ann has blue eyes.”

Versus:

“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”

Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures.  At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.

And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for:  “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”

Please.  For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use “thought” verbs.  After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.

Author: Chuck Palahniuk (Aug 13)

One thing leads to another – unlocking creativity

Some people have known all their lives that they wanted to write fiction – I’m not one of them.

2014-05-03 08.15.48I’ve always been comfortable with the written word. It’s probably because I was lucky to benefit from a good education, acquiring a solid grasp of language and grammar at an early age. I was luckier still to be taught at senior school by an enthusiastic trio of English teachers who instilled in me a love of books and a passion for the theatre. Outside the demands of the classroom and homework, I even wrote for pleasure – but not fiction; I became part of the small team who edited and produced the school magazine. Throughout my adolescence I picked up pen-friends around the world and I loved receiving and sending rambling missives about all the things that challenge, delight and perturb teenage girls.

In my working life, I’ve written just about every kind of commercial material you can imagine – marketing letters and email campaigns, RFPs and proposals, fact sheets, newsletters and case studies, white papers and websites, blogs and brochures and much, much more. But, until the last 5 years or so – no fiction. (Okay, careful now, I know some people might regard some marketing material as drifting perilously close to fiction, but let’s not get into that one.)

2012 58 D002 Jan 12After decades of focus on work and commercial concerns, including pushing hard for career changes and then going freelance on the back of a redundancy, my creative brain – if it ever existed – was thoroughly submerged beneath layers of analytical and practical thinking.

But things began to change in 2007. A friend of mine had taken up paper-crafting and was finding it a relaxing and creatively satisfying hobby. At the time, I thought it all seemed a bit inconsequential, although to be fair, that’s probably the point of a hobby. But the cards she produced were mini works of art, utterly beautiful and such a pleasure to receive – I still have every one she has sent me. So one day, I took the plunge and bought myself a basic card kit and at Christmas 2007, I produced a very unremarkable collection of handmade Christmas cards.

I moved forward from my early attempts – licky-sticky card-making. I searched out You Tube videos and watched crafting telly; I bought magazines and strained to see the experts at work at crafting events. Gradually I began to get into the experimental and creative type of card-making my friend so much enjoyed – and I loved it.

C001 Xmas 09 MoiraFor me, it’s an enormous pleasure to design and create a card for someone I care about. I’m not focussed on any one kind of card-making; I enjoy trying different styles and learning new techniques. And I’m a sucker for a seemingly endless selection of supplies – things like paper, inks, tools, dies, paints, foils and miscellaneous accessories.

Until I started playing with inks and paper, I honestly believed I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. Card-making is where I realised I had a creative side to my brain and more than that, it was desperate to be liberated. And if I could apply it to making little works of art for my friends, why couldn’t I apply it to my long-favoured creative environment – the written word?

You don’t know until you try, so in Autumn 2009, I attended my first Arvon Foundation course – called ‘Starting to Write’, and I… started to write.

I began with three short stories, one of which amazingly won Writing Magazine’s monthly prize and was printed in the magazine. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Within a few months of typing my first few words of fiction, I’d received a cheque. Prize money or payment for publication – whatever you call it, I was elated.

And with that £200, the genie was out of the bottle.

When will it ever end

Last September, I dotted the last ‘i’ and crossed the last ‘t’ on my final final final draft of SINGLED OUT. Or so I thought.

murder your darlingsLast September, I believed I’d taken My First Novel as far as I could in drafting and editing terms. I wrote my synopsis (a traumatic experience) and carved off a chunk of text into a sample document. I took a set of fluorescent markers to my copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book 2014′ and lined up a shortlist of lucky, lucky agents who were to be the priority recipients of my masterpiece.

Then I sat back and waited for the offers to flood in. I waited, I blogged about the wait, and I waited some more. Instead of a flood, there was a trickle, and what trickled in was not overawed, enthusiastic ‘oh my word, this is magnificent, send us your full manuscript and come in and see us at once, and by the way don’t talk to any other agents until we’ve explained what we can do for you’ emails. What trickled in was – yes, right first time – a smattering of polite and kindly worded ‘sorry, not for us’ rejection emails.

I kept going, still fairly selectively. But those rejections kept on coming. The current tally is 17 agent submissions and 13 rejection emails. Of the remaining four, three date back to February/March and can thus be regarded as time-expired, rejections by omission. (Happily, the majority of agents have proved to be more courteous than this.) To date one agent, in theory, still has my novel in review, but as this agent accepted it as a courtesy following a seminar, I’m not holding my breath.

There was the odd flicker of interest. Two agents requested the full manuscript on the back of my submission, prompting palpitations and a wave of misplaced optimism in yours truly. Their rejections followed in due course.

But here’s the thing. Pithy though their feedback was, those two agents made broadly similar observations in their rejection emails. Not only that, but a very welcome latecomer to the beta reader party (you know who you are…) and a much loved and valued writing buddy both offered more detailed critique which, blow me down, highlighted the exact same issues.

I went away for a few days last week with these critiques much on my mind. The original plan had been to spend a few days rereading my manuscript and sharpening up a few lines here and there. But I’d begun to realise the ‘problem’ with my story was more fundamental than scrapping yet more surplus adverbs (though the volume of those infectious little critters you have to steel yourself to eliminate across layers of editing is a revelation in itself).

As I grappled with my folder of curiously comparable critique, I confess I grew frustrated. Having been so close to my novel for four years, I just didn’t get it. Intellectually, I could grasp what they were saying were the shortcomings. But when it came to addressing them, I couldn’t see how without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Worse still, I couldn’t see why my story seemed to need such fundamental changes. Cue a gnashing of teeth and much grizzling and pouting.

In the still of the night I lay awake, frustrated, fretful. True to form at around 4:00am, my brain at last began to shift into the right gear. I began to get my head around what they’d all been saying. I started to find my way from I can’t towards how can I?

In the morning I got to work, identifying sections which screamed out for more tension and scenes which demanded more mystery; I earmarked pages where the pace dipped, weighted by too much unnecessary detail; I hunted down paragraphs where the language had to be nipped-and-tucked to better fit the character.

I decided two of my main characters will undergo a name change; I’ve finally conceded they have too much of the stereotype about them, and it begins with their names. But that’s mind-bending for me, as I’ve lived with them for upwards of four years. Oh, and talking of characters, I’m introducing a new one.

If this all sounds like a major rewrite, I don’t want to mislead you. This is far more than the tweaking I’d originally planned, but it’s not a rewrite. The story is essentially all there and all the pieces matter. Everything fits together and the plot is – I still believe – strong. What I’m dealing with is tone and pace, adding suspense in places I hadn’t realised it was needed, keeping up the tension instead of allowing it to fade away, injecting moments of uncertainty, deleting yet more extraneous detail – that sort of thing. This means I’m back in murder your darlings territory – not just words and lines, but paragraphs, great chunking paragraphs, sometimes one after another – and it hurts. But I know what I’m doing and at last I can see why it’s needed.

So that’s my job for what remains of the summer – to carry on culling whilst I meld new and modified material seamlessly back into the story. Then the plan is to approach a few more agents in the autumn months. As to what happens after that… Well, without suggesting anything at all about my more grounded expectations for this part of the process, I’m booked into a ‘how to self-publish’ seminar towards the end of the year. So we’ll just have to see.

When is a debut novel not a debut novel?

The learning experience continues…

Bottom Drawer FilingI read an article recently on beginning a fiction writing career late in life – you can find it here on the Writer’s & Artist’s website if you’re interested. The author, Dinah Jeffries, has some telling observations about the challenges of getting published. I noted she regards her first attempt at a novel as a learning experience. She doesn’t name this novel in her article and only cites the succession of rejections she received. With her official debut novel, The Separation, just published by Penguin, her actual debut novel remains, I presume, tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere.

For obvious reasons I keep an eye out for debut novels regarded as stunning, astounding or wildly successful. I’ve enjoyed many of them in recent years. Just a few examples: The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Monster Love by Carol Topolski and more recently The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer and The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. These are all extraordinary books with unique and distinctive voices.

What’s interesting to this would-be debut novelist is the number of debut novelists whose debut novel, as it were, isn’t their first novel. I can’t speak for all the authors above but in addition to Dinah Jeffries, Nathan Filer for one admits to having an earlier work tucked away in a bottom drawer somewhere. I’m pretty sure he isn’t alone in this.

So I’ve been wondering, is Singled Out my bottom-drawer novel? I’ve certainly learned a huge amount in the course of writing it. I’m still learning too, as I’ve realised I need to work through every page again in another dispassionate, murder-your-darlings line edit. This I will tackle over the summer (which means for now, no more agents will be burdened with the task of reviewing my submission).

When I’ve dragged Singed Out through yet another edit, will it be extraordinary enough? Will its voices be unique and distinctive enough? I don’t know. But I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t just accept the inevitable, finish the edit I know it needs, then set it aside and begin my second novel, armed with the mass of learning that the last four years, three writing courses, two retreats and one mentor – oh, and 330+ pages – has delivered.

There’s always the self-publish option, I know, and that remains in my mind. But if I believe my second novel could be excellent and distinctive enough to be my debut novel, should I debut, as it were, in a self-published way, with my learning experience? Or should I instead swallow my disappointment, finish that one last edit, then parcel it up and tuck it away in a bottom drawer?

I’m interested in your thoughts on this, but I’m not looking for easy answers. I’m just sharing the thought process that accompanies the experience of rejection and the almost certain knowledge that I haven’t quite got it nailed – yet. I know not to take it too hard, as rejection is a much, much more common experience than acceptance, contracts and publication. But if I’m sincere about learning to become a good – and publishable – novelist, is it not pragmatic to bottom-drawer that first attempt – filed not under failure but under learning experience?

What will they think of me?

Do you ever worry what people close to you might think of you if you write certain things into your novel? I do.

eye-catcher-74182-pixabayA few months ago I circulated Singled Out to a small group of Beta Readers. On returning with his feedback, one reader said, with a wry smile, ‘I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at you the same way again, Julie.’

I don’t think he meant anything by it – in his case it was more tongue-in-cheek. It’s just that Singled Out does contain a few shall we say, edgy moments and a bit of shall we say, earthy language, and I think they took him by… surprise. But that’s because I’ve chosen to write psychological rather than chick lit or aga saga; deadly nightshade, not sunbeams and butterflies.

His reaction though begged the question, will others who read this feel the same way and if they do, how do I feel about that? Readers who don’t know me will take it all at face value, since writers write about all sorts of things and readers buy what they enjoy. But what about friends and family? And for me, wearing a businesswoman’s hat as well as a writer’s hat, what about my professional marketing clients? Should I be concerned what they will make of it?

So yes, if not a worry, it is certainly a concern.

Pale faced, my Beta Reader went on to ask, in a way which suggested he might not actually want to know the answer, if I was writing from experience. I told him, I’d been on one or two singles holidays so, yes, I was writing from experience. ‘Not that’, he said. ‘The— oh, you know what I mean’.

Ah. Yes. But no. What he’s talking about, those edgier plot moments, it’s a No. I wasn’t writing from experience. It was all from imagination – well, almost all. Mostly. Anyway, I thanked him for his concern and told him he could stop worrying.

Of course one doesn’t have to experience things in order to write them into a story. I can describe a dead body without ever having seen one; a cocaine hit without ever having been near a gram of the stuff; a deviant sexual activity without ever having so deviated; or a grizzly crime without ever having been a victim of it – or a perpetrator for that matter. There are always people who know people who can help with credible detail and failing that, there’s a world of Googleknowledge to draw on. If writers couldn’t do this, there’d be far more dull and insipid novels around and far fewer murder mysteries, heart-stopping thrillers and psycho-dramas.

But whether I’m writing wholly or partially or not at all from experience, I chose to write a gritty psychological story where bad stuff happens and the mood is at times raw and unsettling. Apart from anything else, I confess it’s weirdly fun to get out of my workaday existence and alter-ego this kind of material.

So if any clients, close friends or family are reading this – or in future if any clients, close friends or family read this novice writer’s first attempt at an unsettling psychological story – I hope you will all forgive the fact that I’ve taken a big step away from my comfortably suburban private life and my conscientiously professional business life and gone somewhere very different for my new writing life…

I just hope it doesn’t offend you, or disturb you, or make you look askance at me.

We need to talk about… Sex

Note on a tree in a forestBlogging is generally good fun, but with so many blogs seeking an audience it can, even on a good day, be likened to pinning a note to a tree in a forest.  And if that’s the case, then posting on a Friday afternoon is like writing that note in invisible ink. Whatever the world at large was getting up to on Friday afternoon (and the sunny Saturday and Sunday that followed for that matter), you weren’t reading blog posts, were you?

Yes, I committed a social media faux pas when I posted my latest blog last Friday afternoon.  It was the one headed Precision detail in a novel – not just any place but this place about how I used notes and photographs to help me recall places and senses and inject precision detail into my writing.  I’ve been trying different days and times for posting and last week I plumbed the depths – a Friday afternoon ahead of a weekend that teased (the UK at least) with the promise of a little sunshine. Not only that, but I might allow that it wasn’t the most compelling of posts – interesting for some, but hardly challenging, contentious or amusing in the way a properly engaging blog post needs to be.   A double-whammy, for sure. I’m sorry, ok. Mea culpa and all that.

So last Friday afternoon it hit the water with a barely perceptible splash, before sinking without trace over the weekend, with hits in numbingly modest numbers and just one kind soul commenting; a dead body of a post, leaden and dull. Yesterday’s thoughts already half a mile down your blog reader, never to surface.

A few weeks ago, I penned a post on the challenges of writing sex into stories (Marmite Moments: Writing good sex). Strangely (who knew?), it was my most read and commented post of the last year. To be fair, a substantial dose of the credit for that is due to WordPress for offering me a second slot on Freshly Pressed – thanks, Ben! But it did get a few people going and it garnered some great comments and a whole host of new bloggers to connect with – and after all, that’s what makes blogging fun, isn’t it?

So clearly, I need to go back to writing about Marmite.

Or maybe… Sex.

That’s it. Not Marmite. Sex.

So I’ll see what I can do over the next few days, and I’ll be back soon with something to get properly hot around the collar, as it were, about.  Don’t get too excited though – this is still a blog about writing, not a blog about sex. But with the creative juices flowing, I imagine I can find a way to slip in a few sneakily salacious musings.

All in the best possible taste, of course.

Precision detail in a novel – not just any place, but this place

I’ve been asked to share how I capture a sense of place in my novel. For example, what research do I do, how do I take notes, are photographs involved, and so on. So here goes…

SINGLED OUT is set on a singles holiday on Turkey’s beautiful Lycian Coast. I’ve visited this area many times over the last 20 years and I love its striking landscape and laid-back, exotic atmosphere. Whilst my story is essentially a dark psychological one, I wanted the sense of place to be very strong; my intention is for the reader to feel as if they’re on the holiday with my characters.

This writer's notepad - illegible scrawl from Turkey, May 2013
This writer’s notepad: illegible scrawl, Turkey, May 2013

Last year after a gap of 6 years I returned to Turkey specifically to gather that sensory detail for my novel. Memories fade over the years, especially the minuscule details of sight, sound and smell which are essential to anchoring the setting or a scene in a novel precisely and bringing it to life for readers. I wanted to fill a notepad with images and sensory detail to inject into my story. I got more than I could possibly have expected from the experience, as I first wrote about in my post It Makes Sense:

I realised as I filled its pages, how inert ones memories of a place can become. It’s easy enough to pick up an old photograph and see what a raggedy coastline looks like, or a market, or an ancient ruin. But when you’re there, you smell the pine and the citrus, the sweat and cigarettes; you see the gnarly knuckles and the stained aprons; you hear the wail of the muezzin’s prayer and watch the sun radiate from the golden dome of a mosque; you feel the sting of perspiration as it trickles into your eye and savour sweet green peppers and succulent tomatoes under a canopy of twisted vines. Oh, I could go on… and on…

I don’t want you imagining my story is awash with descriptive detail at the expense of plot and character. But there are one or two places where I’ve gone to town a bit on the setting, using my photographs and notes to develop a strong sense of place. Of course these may all go, if and when a real editor gets to work on the draft. But for the time being, I’m getting away with it.

Ephesus

My characters take a trip to Ephesus, so I did too. I’d last been there 20 years ago and I imagined that whilst two thousand year old ruins are two thousand year old ruins, the tourist business of Ephesus and its surroundings must have changed over the years – and I was right.

I was fortunate to have a guide all to myself for the day and I explained to her the main purpose of my visit. I was able to wander at will, ask endless questions and take dozens of photographs. Knowing why I was there, she didn’t question that I photographed odd things; the stalls outside the entrance, the entrance barriers, other groups of tourists, odd rocks and stones, cats and trees, pavements and signposts, as well as those breathtaking ancient ruins.

Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
Stalls at the entrance to Ephesus
The only shade there is at Ephesus
The only shade at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus
Warm bodies and a cloudless sky at Ephesus

I couldn’t easily take notes as we walked around the site, but I caught up as soon as we stopped for lunch; a combination of my guide’s historical knowledge, my sense of the place and how I’d felt as I walked its streets.  You think you’ll remember these things, but let me tell you, you won’t.  Notepads are a vital tool – however illegible (as mine often are), their pages will take you right back to a precise place or moment, months or even years later.

But I had to keep reminding myself, SINGLED OUT is a novel not a travel book. An earlier draft contained far too much historical detail from that Ephesus trip and much of it has since come out. It’s enough to have done the research and deployed elements of detail where they’re needed to enrich; but there’s no need to show off how much you know.

So you can see how it worked for me, here’s a paragraph from that fictional trip to Ephesus:

Around them tour guides spoke in English, French, German, Swedish and Japanese to visitors unbalanced by loaded backpacks, while others brandished sticks to aid their movement or umbrellas to shield them from the sun. They stopped randomly and without warning for photographs. At every point where Fatima drew the group close, James and Veronica listened with rapt attention – and Brenda rummaged in her bag for water, a fan, a facial spritz or a wad of tissues. All the while, the heat came at them not only from above, but from beneath their feet and all around. It rose in waves from the flagstone avenues and radiated off the columns and walls. Brenda was slow-roasting in the Ephesus noonday oven.

Market Day

Two of my characters browse a local market together one day. I’d gone to markets in Turkey before and had some lovely old photographs (from the days before digital). Then I went to the market in Fethiye on my trip last year, armed with my trusty notepad – and my eyes and nose. Here’s an excerpt which uses my recollections and notes from all those Turkish markets combined.

The area where the weekly market took place lay behind the shopping street and away from the beach. It would be generous to call it a marketplace, since for six days a week this area of gravel and clay lay fallow; carved here and there by tyre tracks from the few trucks that needed somewhere to turn around before speeding away.

On the seventh day, it teemed with life from before dawn until late afternoon. Farmers came from the villages and hamlets in the hills, their pick-ups laden with fresh produce of all shapes and mis-shapes, a riot of colour and a testament to the industry and enterprise out of sight of the tourist coastline. Traders moved from town to town, market day to market day, bringing truckloads of goods to sell; t-shirts and trousers, bags and belts, pashminas and pendants, sandals and sunhats all manufactured in anonymous factories far away from the coast or most likely in China. Packets of candy, nuts and aromatic spices sat alongside jars of glistening local honey and blocks of cheese; everything was available to buy from dusty trestle tables and rails, all under cover of flapping white awnings – giving the impression the whole market was a trading ship about to set sail.

The two women passed an enjoyable couple of hours wandering the length and breadth of the market. They flirted with the crusty, moustachioed farmers behind their piles of wooden boxes laden with curly runner beans, torpedo aubergines, red and white onions, peppers and courgettes, oranges, lemons, strawberries and giant watermelons; they breathed in the aromas of citronella and cinnamon, fruit teas and fresh herbs, beaten leather, crushed straw, workaday sweat and cigarettes; they bartered with stall-holders over beaded necklaces, embroidered purses and gaudily embellished flip-flops; they cooed over a pile of crates crammed with baby chicks, their fluffy down every shade from creamy gold-top through honey roast to dark chocolate brown, and they sympathised with a brace of rabbits whose fate was obvious and more immediate. Brenda stocked up on candied fruits and sugared almonds and Siobhan found a fake henna kit she couldn’t live without. Then, with carrier bags brimming with tourist trinkets, they made for the line of beachfront bars and the yellow awning, for lunch.

The Gulet Trip

Turkish Gulet - a fine sight, even without its sails
Turkish Gulet

My characters take an overnight trip on one of Turkey’s ubiquitous gulets. I’ve spent weeks at a time on gulets before – it’s a blissful experience, to bob about on the ocean for a few days with no shoes on and nothing to do but sunbathe and read books. This time I took a day trip to refresh my memories of the sights, sounds and odours. I took photographs of the coastline and odd corners of the boat. I noted the way the motion affected my balance, the sounds of the boat and the water, the smells coming up from the sea – and the kitchen; I registered what the sunlight did to the chrome, the woodwork and the sails. Here’s a snapshot of my impressions which made it into the story:

The deck-hands unrolled the jib over the bow and the sail on the second mast and high above them squally gusts took hold. The trio of sails ballooned with the strengthening wind of open water; they fought and whipped about, tugging at their fastenings, lifting and plunging the boat forward, cutting into the water and venting fine salty spray into the air and across the deck. The restaurant on the beach became a speck against a panorama of grey-green scrub and rocky slopes, the bay zoomed away into the distance. The industrial grinding of the diesel engine was replaced by a sublime, organic symphony; a blustery flapping of sails, the steady swish-swash of waves, the metallic pounding of the rigging and the cawing of a seabird. Breathless and eyes wide, Henry lay on his back staring up towards the tip of the mast and beyond into the cloudless sky. Surely life couldn’t get better than this.

Most of the detail from my scruffy notepads made it into the story one way or another – a few words here, a sentence there – which is mostly all you need. It’s only when you want to anchor the reader more specifically in a given place or moment, that it’s perhaps permissible to layer the detail a little more. But that’s just my feeling, and, as a novice and yet-to-be-published writer, I may find my layers of sights, sounds and smells are pared down in the final edit. So please don’t take my word for it that this is the right approach. It’s just the thing I did – whether it adds substance to my story, or gets in the way of the plot, someone with more experience than I may yet be the judge of this.

Back to the Notepads

We hear all the time about writers settling down in coffee bars to write. But something else happens for me when I sit with a bowl of my favourite dark roast, watching and listening – and filling up my notepads.

A Writer's NotepadA couple of years ago I was drinking coffee at a table outside a cafe close to Earls Court, keeping an eye out for a friend who would emerge from the station over the road. I had a little time to wait. Like any good writer (irony, okay?) I started noting the sights, sounds and smells, but my imagination took the setting and wandered off into the first few lines of a story. Here’s what I scribbled in my notepad that day:

The spring air smells of coffee grounds and Gauloises; buses stutter to a stop, spewing diesel; mobile advertising hoardings promoting the latest action adventure, thriller blockbuster; sun blasts the bus shelter, a blinding glare; there’s a cemetery opposite, a land of death and loss; light and dark; crowds of foreign students jostle, yabbering, excitable; a pair of Japanese ladies, prim and bewildered; a queue of builders buying sandwiches, overwhelming the cramped cafe in their day-glo jackets and steel-capped boots… Watching… something happens… what? An accident? A crime? A car pulls up, screeching, a rear door opens and a man is shoved out into the street. He lands in a heap in the gutter. He clutches a manila folder to his chest. He’s bleeding from somewhere – a sticky ooze leaks from between his fingers. The car wheel-spins and vanishes. For a moment, no one moves. One of the builders sets his coffee and sandwich bag on the table and wanders over. ‘You alright, mate?’ he asks. The man groans. A BMW whooshes by, blue lights flashing in its grille. Back inside the cafe, someone is on the phone summoning an ambulance. Dazed, the man lets go of his folder, leaving a bloody handprint across the cover. A breeze catches it and it flaps open, drifting beyond his reach. A dozen sheets of paper fan out, hovering just above the tarmac before another bus draws up, sending them spilling down the road. The man moans, ‘no… oh no…’.

That’s as far as I got before my friend arrived. I don’t know if that moment, with its mix of reality and imagination will ever enter a story. But having written it down it remains vivid, rather than floating away like so many thoughts and ideas.

A few weeks ago, and I was in another coffee bar in a provincial town – yes, I confess, I have a coffee bar habit. I sat alone with my back to a table occupied by three people; an elderly lady and a middle-aged man and woman. It transpired that the middle-aged pair were brother and sister and the elderly lady, their mother.

I wish I could have taken verbatim notes of the conversation, but it seemed a little obvious. So instead I listened and absorbed, whilst trying to keep my jaw from dropping to the tabletop. The brother and sister each with their different agendas, were, in a well-mannered but very insistent way, working their mother over in an effort to persuade her to release part of their inheritance to alleviate their currently compromised financial situations. There was a business in difficulty; there were school fees to be paid; the burden of mortgages and so on. And all could be made right by the early deployment of the older woman’s money.

I imagine conversations like this take place quite a lot – especially these days.   I can understand the pressures which lead to adult children approaching their parents for help. What astonished me was that this conversation took place in public, within earshot of a dozen people – in a public coffee bar – in public.

It got me thinking; not so much about the inheritance issue, although that could certainly form the basis of an intriguing narrative. But instead the thought that a personal conversation – one that should have taken place out of earshot of anyone – a conversation overheard in a coffee bar, could open the door to a story, and pretty much any kind of story at that.

I’m trying to get together some ideas for my second novel – wondering all the while what will be the fate of the first. That’s why I’ve turned to my notepads. Here I’ve found the details of several more places where I’ve passed a few minutes over food or drink, or days of leisure; a detailed description of a spectacular barn conversion completed by the friend of a friend, painful notes on an excruciating weekend away (everything is material for the writer); characters from all sorts of places whose visual appearance or mannerisms have made an impression, tastes and sounds, and several, several other moments in time. I don’t take anywhere near as many notes as writers should (I imagine), but even so, I’m already amassing quite a diverse selection of what one might think of as springboards, creatively speaking.

Springboards are all very well, but when one can write about absolutely anything, when one can create whatever kind of a story one wants, and bring to life whatever collection of characters one cares to imagine, the question is this… where… where… where on earth do I begin?